Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Marvin Bradley and Rex Morgan – Doctors Without Borders.

Sketch of Rex Morgan – It seemed strange that someone who must have drawn the face of Dr Morgan thousands of times, needed to go to his studio and (I never saw) light-box? trace? pencil and erase? a simple head-shot…

By Rick Marschall

I was named Comics Editor of Publishers Newspaper Syndicate in the mid-1970s after similar stints at United Feature Syndicate and Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. In fact I was offered the job to be Sylvan Byck’s assistant at King Features Syndicate, a position created for me, by KFS General Manager Neal Freeman; and the job at Publishers (of Field Enterprises, as it had been known).

The choice was excruciating, because William Randolph Hearst (founder of King Features) had been a hero; but the chance to be comics chief at the Number Two syndicate in the field won out over the offer to be Number Two comics guy at the Number One syndicate. In a holding pattern behind Sylvan.

Publishers / Field, in Chicago, was attractive enough. Some of the great strips, many by friends, awaited – Johnny Hart’s BC and Wizard of Id; Hank Ketcham’s Dennis; Mell Lazarus’ Miss Peach and Momma; Pogo had just wound down; Funky Winkerbean by Tom Batiuk; VIP’s Big George; childhood favorites Freddy by Rupe, and The Girls by Franklin Folger. Jules Feiffer, Bill Mauldin, Herblock. What a playground!

It was also known as the Syndicate of the Soapssoap-opera and continuity strips. It was a kick to work with Milton Caniff on Steve Canyon. No “work” was needed, but I had an excuse to call and pay visits. Otherwise the story strips included Mary Worth, Steve Roper, Kerry Drake, Rex Morgan MD, Judge Parker, Apartment 3-G, Mark Trail…

It was a time when story strips were dying, and the reasons seemed clear. Shorter stories and quicker resolutions on TV series. More action on movie screens. A newsprint shortage that forced papers to save space and shrink the comics – less detail, shorter dialog. And so forth… at least as the defense raised by cartoonists, editors, and syndicate salesmen.

In my analysis, the chief culprit was simply that strips had grown dull; cartoonists were being lazy; and in a new age, story strips were inexplicably prissy. I will recall in a future column the many fights and few allies I had in my efforts to make these story strips exciting and inviting. I fought like crazy to the (resistant) Nick Dallis, writer of Rex Morgan, Judge Parker, and Apt 3-G, but when I got bounced he was the most vocal supporter of mine, wanting to start a petition among the cartoonists to bring me back.

But this visit will be with Marvin Bradley – Brad – who had drawn Rex Morgan, MD from the first cough, in 1948. Dr Dallis, a psychiatrist in Arizona, had created the strip (as “Dal Curtis”); and the “background artist” was Frank Edgington. The trio had a very strange working relationship and one whose creative process I frankly never believed.  When I asked to see work in middle stages, or we needed artwork for articles or exhibitions, they would show the script, partially inked backgrounds with white silhouettes like ghosts in a room, then as the last step with inked figures and faces.

When Rex began, there were interesting storylines, even controversial subjects. But when I became the editor and wanted to shake things up, in my fervor I finally and undiplomatically told Nick that a typical Rex daily was: 1. Closeup of phone ringing, Rex or Nurse June in background. 2: Closeup of hand reaching for phone. 3: Closeup of Rex or June; “Hello?” I said that if the strip were ever optioned to Hollywood, it would have to be a slide show and not a movie…

Nick Dallis and I wrangled. But Brad only drew what he was asked, and was a leaf in the stream. In fact, he was the most genial of guys. We became social friends, and my wife and I visited the Bradleys in suburban Barrington many times, even after I left the syndicate.

Earlier in Brad’s career he was one of the better Caniff clones (as many tried to be in newspaper strips and comic books). He had assisted on strips like Kerry Drake and Mary Worth, and signed his own Speed Spaulding. Bradley and Edgington, and the anonymous Dr Dallis, collaborated on the cult comic book Teen Age Dope Slaves, now a hot collectible. I am sure that dope played no role with the characters, but as Brad settled into his comfort zone, I noted that they all had glassy stares, seldom making eye contact with readers or other figures.

He and Frank were the first and long-time artists; followed by a succession of anonymous and credited cartoonists, including two I had recruited to draw the next available “straight” feature: Fran Matera, a friend from Connecticut; and Fred daSilva, from nearby Lincolnshire. Otherwise, Frank Springer, André LeBlanc, Alex Kotsky, Woody Wilson, Tony diPreta, Graham Nolan, and Terry Beatty have written and / or drawn the strip.

Brad had an outside interest, a parallel career really. In fact I think it was literally a cottage industry, something he and his wife concocted in their spacious home. It was a medicinal type of product – more a folk remedy, certainly not certified, and quite possibly a snake oil – that he called Berba. It was a thick sludge, chocolately-brown, awful smelling, that the Bradleys put up in bottles.

“It is made from the root of the barberry bush,” Brad explained, pronouncing “root” in his Midwestern way, “rutt.”

He made fantastic claims for Berba, and was such an enthusiastic pusher that after one visit to him, he sent Nancy and me back to New Jersey, where we had moved, with several bottles. I think I am correct in recalling his claims – but whether he was correct about the claims I was, and am, dubious – that Berba was not only efficacious but a virtual miracle-product for diabetes, ringworm, eczema, bad breath, chilblains, laryngitis, burns, catarrh, and vaginal yeast infections. It could be used, he said (not W C Fields, understand, but Marvin Bradley) as a mosquito repellent and a mouthwash.

Actually, and if any reader thinks I seem skeptical, let me explain that it is because I was and am a skeptic. But the herbal preparation has a reasonably active commercial life. The barks and berries are used as well as the rutts, so they would share whatever blame might be assigned. According to Dr. Wikipedia, there are even more health crises met than Brad claimed – diarrhea, jumpy nerves, indigestion, epilepsy, and incipient cancers. My late wife was diabetic, but she never yielded to the comprehensive but yet amateur recommendations of Marvin Bradley.

Where we lived in New Jersey, for a while thereafter, was at a large estate (on a road where Bruce Springsteen now lives) with a very large lawn. One day on the rider-mower my arm touched an exposed part of the motor and I sustained a large and severe burn on my forearm. Nancy was pregnant and I didn’t want a mad dash to the not-so-local hospital. “Why don’t you try some of Brad’s Berba?” she cried; and it seemed like the time, at last, to test it.

We poured the miracle cure on the burn and, like a miracle, it started to sizzle and bubble. Rather an odd sensation, apart from the intense pain and strange odor. Burning flesh? I wondered. I remember these things well because the burn-mark, or Berba-stain, took about five years to grow out. But lo and behold there is no trace today of either. A miracle!

This is not an endorsement of the product. But then the prep-master, Marvin Bradley, was not a doctor. He just drew one in the comics.


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